In the Wild West of young people’s digital lives: the 2019 Sexplain conference
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
Approaching sex and relationships in a digital age is the theme of Sex Education for the 21st Century – the second Sexplain annual conference, held this year on 30 November. Sexplain’s “unembarrassable sexperts” lead inclusive, intersectional-feminist, sex-positive workshops for young people on topics like porn, periods and pleasure. Today’s conference line-up sounds edgy and thought-provoking.
Parents agree that sexting is affecting children: “But not my child – I can trust them.”
Sexting – aka self-generated sexual content – is the specialty of Emily Setty, University of Surrey lecturer in criminology and author of “Confident” and “hot” or “desperate” and “cowardly”? Meanings of young men’s sexting practices in youth sexting culture. Her research takes a sociological look at the risks, harms and ethics of young people’s digital sexual lives.
These days there’s an “intensified social landscape of risk”, says Setty, with society broadcasting the message that sexting is bad and that young people are vulnerable and need protecting. It’s all based on fear, restriction and criminality.
The picture Setty paints is complex: even if young people aren’t actively sexting – or rather sending nudes (their preferred term) – they’re still learning about themselves as gendered sexualised subjects through this peer-group practice. Teenagers can gain status and popularity by sending or receiving naked images or be shamed for sending them. LGBT teens can be outed.
Sexting is a form of social currency, and young people have created a market – a culture of social sharing, shaming, blaming and bullying – around it.
“We need to promote the idea that there’s social capital to be gained through bystander intervention in supporting a friend who’s been shamed,” reflects Setty. “Non-sexting kids are part of the bystander culture. They have the power to play a role that’s supportive or detrimental to someone else’s wellbeing, so they’re not without responsibility.”
SEXTING & SCHOOLS
Young people don’t experience the polarity that adults see between real life and the digital space. For young people the iPhone – which launched in 2007 – is an extension of themselves. They grew up with it; they were socialised with it; it plays a part in their “impression management”. “Sexting is all about teenagers’ presentation of themselves,” explains University of Kent lecturer in media studies Dr Kaitlyn Regehr. “For them digital images are part of sex, part of relationships. If we understand that, then we can teach digital literacy in a more holistic way that works for young people.”
Although schools are generally risk averse, they need to initiate discussion about sexting. It’s necessary to politicise the conversation because sexting is part of a broader landscape of sexism, inequality and power imbalances.
But young people – who need a space to talk confidentially – worry that disclosing sexting incidents to their school will get them in trouble or even mean an assembly is held about it.
There is a class divide in how schools handle sexting, maintains Regehr. With schools in socioeconomically deprived areas, social stigma is the concern. “But,” she says, “there’s also social capital for a girl in sending a video of herself giving a blowjob.”
Private schools, on the other hand, focus on the possible long-term repercussions to students’ reputations. “The school’s message is: we are preparing you to be the next set of leaders. So hide your dirty laundry and have sex without cameras present,” says Regehr. “It’s all about preserving a public image, not about consent – which is quite sick.”
It should fall to schools, Setty concludes, to inform young people about how digital rights and sexual rights overlap. Unfortunately, those two areas are “conceptually distinct” for many educators and young people.
NEW TECHNOLOGY, OLD ASSUMPTIONS
With new technology come new forms of abuse – and the reinforcement of old messages about girls’ and women’s bodies. Depressingly, young people are buying into and importing adults’ anxieties and outdated judgmental attitudes about gender, stigma, shame and sexuality onto their new digital terrain.
Gender politics in the digital space still problematise girls’ and women’s sexuality, as in the post-1960s attitude: “You wore the short skirt so it’s your fault,” says Kaitlyn Regehr. “Boys still sees a girl who sexts with them as dodgy, undeserving, different from their sister or mum – she’s not girlfriend material.”
Seeing images of naked girls is a normalised, “boys will be boys” way for young men to bond: “Boys describe it as being like keeping up with fashion,” says Emily Setty. “Sexting is a way for heterosexual boys to be sexually celebrated and accepted, but only if they adhere to a certain form of masculinity that’s hard for boys to meet. If they fall short they too can be socially shamed.”
Meanwhile girls involved with sexting are objectified, dehumanised and assumed to have no self-worth or self-respect. “There’s a narrative that continues to make girls vulnerable – that girls have to say no to sex and that boys will push them into it,” says Setty.
Some girls and young women are pushing back on this. They’re reclaiming the “slut” label but they’re careful about it. There’s an ambivalence for girls in expressing pleasure in sexting – being out and proud about sexting means they’ve fallen down the social hierarchy. Other girls, having internalised shame around sexting, try to protect themselves by saying sexting isn’t sexual for them; it’s just nice to please someone else.
It goes back to the idea of women getting pleasure from pleasing men and prioritising men’s pleasure. The post-feminist argument goes beyond “If you turn on the guy, you’re hot” to: “You can be empowered by being a sex object for men.”
But that’s double-edged sword for girls who, complying with a boy’s sexting request, are met with shame: “You’re a slut because you gave me this picture.”
Girls sometimes send provocative poses to a female friend to test-run what might land as sexy with boys. Ultimately even those pushing back on narratives of shame say they often use sexting as a means to an end: “We need physical pleasure, so we send nudes to get it.”
UNSOLICITED DICK PICS: THE NEW NORMAL
Despite charting new territory by sending each other nudes, young people often appropriate society’s view about sexting: it’s the image-sender’s fault and they shouldn’t have sent an image in the first place, says Sophie Whitehead, a Sexplain facilitator who has an MA in social justice and education. Together with UCL professor Jessica Ringrose they’ve been working with 150 young people, aged 11 to 18, around body image in advertising and the pressures of sexting. Some drawings the young people made of what they’d seen, sent and received on Snapchat and Instagram were, says Whitehead, quite shocking.
But as Nathaniel Cole, who leads toxic-masculinity workshops with the Good Lad Initiative, says, young people are used to communicating not in person but by app. He reports boys as saying: “How will a girl know I’m into her if I don’t send a dick pic?”.
With this form of non-consensual sexting, the assumption is that boys are highly sexed and girls are passively trying to say no. It falls into the category of male entitlement.
CONSENT IN A DIGITAL AGE
Consent, as sex educator Gayathiri Kamalakanthan defines it, involves checking in with yourself at every step: “You can say you’re not feeling it or the mood has changed. It’s also about asking the other person: ‘Is this OK; is it still OK; do you want to take a break?’”
When she was asked in a workshop: “What if you’re not sure someone is consenting?” she replied: “The answer is: ‘Ask them. Would you rather feel awkward in that moment or allow something non-consensual to happen? Every single person in the world is going to get rejected some time.’ It was a lightbulb moment. All the students said they’d rather ask.”
In our culture, the idea of breaking someone’s trust by non-consensually sharing nude pictures – a situation that’s objectionable both ethically and legally – seems less important than blaming and shaming the victim.
“I don’t tell kids not to send pics,” says Nathaniel Cole. “I tell them that whoever shares them and spreads them out there is in the wrong.”
“Often boys don’t get it,” he says. “They’re unaware of the way girls move through the world and how different their experiences are.”
PORN VS REALITY
Before starting her workshop on beauty and body standards in porn, Gayathiri Kamalakanthan gives a TW – or trigger warning – about some of the ideas up for discussion. The assignment: cut up pictures and words from magazines to make a collage of images and language you’d like to see represented in porn.
Young people, and some adults, don’t understand that porn is a market with choices, says Kamalakanthan. We need to become critical consumers of porn, to find alternatives such as ethical porn or independent “alt porn” and to pay for it. “Buy the porn that you want to see in the world,” she advises.
Let’s debunk myths and understand what mainstream porn is, suggests Nathaniel Cole: “It’s by men for men. It’s a job. It’s staged; there’s a dress rehearsal. They shoot for hours and then it’s heavily edited.”
What isn’t shown in porn is people talking, as equals, about power dynamics. “In porn scenes they’re strangers; there’s no build-up. But it’s important that people speak to each other,” says Cole, “even about things like knowingly and unknowingly violent sex. How do you know what someone likes unless you communicate?”
We need to reinforce what heathy sex is, he says. “The thinking should be: ‘I want to have positive relationships.’ We need to build empathy into children, particularly boys, and to equip them with the right tools.” That involves teaching young people about the emotional side effects of sex and relationships: “They might not understand why they feel a certain way after sex. Kids should know that sex isn’t the only goal. Rather than thinking ‘I want sex’ it should be: ‘I want to be with someone I like and we might have sex.’”
Watching porn at age 15, says an audience member, made her feel insecure: “It destroyed sex for me.”
Kamalakanthan sounds a fatalistic note: “Even if you don’t look up porn, it will find you.”
WHO’S WHO IN PORN
Chairing the panel of Pornography as Pedagogy: What Young People Learn About Sex from Mainstream Porn is Almaz Ohene, founder of Kayleigh Daniels Dated. It was enlightening, she says, in attending the Uncensored Festival in London and the Berlin Porn Film Festival to hear people discuss porn “on artistic, academic levels and analyse it with the same tools as for literary studies”. In Germany, where the age of consent is 14 as opposed to 16 in the UK, a liberal counterculture makes talking about sex, porn and eroticism less shameful or taboo.
What statement are you most tired of hearing about porn, she asks the panel.
“That there is no diversity around people’s shape, age, colour or even the variety of vulvas. That’s a bit dated. Porn has evolved – it’s more inclusive than it was in the 90s,” offers Nadia Deen, founding member of the Intimology Institute and presenter of the AM: Appointment podcast focusing on self-pleasure.
It’s pointed out that there is a lack of positive portrayal, let alone of representation, of Asian males in both porn and the media. It’s a group that doesn’t have a public sexual identity.
Porn influences young people’s first interactions with sex, says Gayathiri Kamalakanthan. There are no condoms; there’s no consent; there are problematic power dynamics such as threesomes and the assumption that women will be submissive; there is assault, transphobia and racism in both porn and in viewers’ comments. There are stereotypes of women – blondes with massive breasts, fetishised Japanese women, black women being “always ready for it” – and of men being overly endowed, having unrealistic levels of stamina, “giving” women instant orgasms.
Deen agrees that young people internalise what they see in porn, stereotypes included: “It’s subtle. Young people are affected at layers that they don’t even realise.”
“Desires settle in later,” Nathaniel Cole observes. “Over time you understand: ‘This is what I’d like to see.’”
“At age 10 or 11 kids aren’t savvy yet about stereotypes. They don’t suspect the difference between reality and the fiction of porn,” says Kamalakanthan.
Young people don’t have the maturity to process what they see in porn. They also don’t get a chance to talk about it – ideally without judgment and not in what feels like a classroom setting. Cole tells students: “There is no weird porn or weird questions.”
With young people, we should move on from the narrow patriarchal definition of sex being penetrative intercourse, says Gayathiri Kamalakanthan. She considers sex to be ways people touch themselves or each other: “Self-pleasure can then be seen as natural and healthy.”
For her “watching people kiss on YouTube was a gateway into self-pleasure”. At 15, when she was exploring her sexuality, she couldn’t find softcore porn of black and brown women having sex with women. The aggressive lesbian porn she saw was scary and intimidating; it fuelled self-doubt and led to her not having sex until she was 20. The fact that queer women’s porn has to do with what men enjoy – it’s shot for the male gaze – “was a barrier. It delayed or prohibited my in-real-life exploration of my sexuality.”
What if someone feels addicted to watching porn? Admitting “I’ve been watching porn half my life”, Cole has some advice: “Talk to friends. Try watching it every other day instead of daily. Masturbate with your eyes closed to retrain your body. Question why you’re watching porn.”
One platform providing self-education for young people is Fumble – a Buzzfeed-style website, subtitled Your Handy Guide to Sex, that explores topics such as porn, sexual health, LGBT issues and positive masculinity. “In the Wild West of the internet,” says co-founder Lucy Whitehouse, “we want to promote critical thinking by giving young people high-quality, shareable content.”
To talk openly about sex, comments Candid Collective founder Becky Lund-Harket, we as adults need self-reflection.
Young people are more likely to be led by outside influences if their parents haven’t talked openly about sex at home, Deen believes. “In my family, if a sex scene came on the TV, we’d change the channel – no discussion. All my mum said to me about sex was: ‘It’s a boy and a girl – don’t ask me any more questions.’”
RECONSIDERING REVENGE PORN
In her talk Reframing “Revenge Porn” as Sexual Violence: Girls and Women Speak Out, Dr Tanya Horeck – a reader in film, media and culture at Anglia Ruskin – questions the term revenge porn. It’s victim blaming. The preferred term: “technology-facilitated violence”. It’s important to recognise that so-called revenge porn is on a continuum of sexual violence – and more specifically digital sexual violence, as it is a form of image-based sexual abuse and part of rape culture. So-called revenge porn is another example of how tech still perpetuates gendered power imbalances, says Horeck.
Practical advice for young people on taking nude pictures
It’s fine if you want to take nude photos but remember to never show your face (or any identifiable marks or features such as a tattoo) in your selfies – crop it out!
Consider what might happen to your images if you fall out with the person you share them with
It’s fine to say no – don’t feel pressured to share photos if you don’t want to
Be aware of risks, like if a stranger asks you to share a nude photo of yourself
The day has been action-packed with insight. I exit the building – and my first impulse is to reach for my phone.